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What causes bad breath

‘Morning breath’

Almost everyone has bad breath first thing in the morning. During the day, movement of the tongue and cheeks dislodges food debris and dead cells, and these are washed away by saliva. While we are asleep our tongue and cheeks do not move much, and the flow of saliva is reduced. The food residues stagnate in the mouth, and mouth bacteria rapidly break them down, releasing an unpleasant stale smell. Breathing through the mouth when sleeping tends to make this worse. Fortunately, morning breath normally disappears after breakfast, cleaning the teeth or rinsing the mouth with water. Get your saliva going with a drink of water and lemon.

Temporary bad breath

Temporary bad breath is the lingering effect of cigarettes or something you have eaten or drunk in the past 24–48 hours. Alcohol, onions, cabbage, broccoli, radish, durian, garlic, curries and other highly spiced foods, cured foods such as salamis, and smoked foods such as kippers are particularly likely to remain on the breath. The problem isn-t simply that the smells stay in the mouth. These foods are digested and then broken down in the body, and the breakdown products of some, particularly alcohol, onions and garlic, are expelled in the breath for hours or days afterwards (this is the basis of the breathalyser test for alcohol).
Smoking also reduces the flow of saliva, which makes its smell linger even longer.
Traditional remedies such as eating parsley help, and mouth fresheners disguise the smell. Clean your mouth by rinsing it thoroughly with warm water, giving it a good brushing with toothpaste and then rinsing thoroughly again.
Bad breath can even result from not eating. When no food is available, the body starts breaking down fat. Waste products from fat breakdown, called ketones, are expelled in the breath, and smell like stale apples.

Persistent bad breath

Gum disease, according to dentists, is the usual cause of persistent bad breath. You will probably be unaware you have the problem because gum disease is not necessarily painful. The gum is likely to bleed when you brush your teeth. It will look very red, but goes pale for a moment if you press on it, and will be slightly swollen where it meets the teeth. Gum disease is caused by plaque, the sticky film of bacteria that naturally forms on the teeth of everyone every day. These bacteria tend to lodge between the teeth and where the teeth meet the gum. The waste products of the bacteria have a foul, stale smell. Apart from bad breath, gum disease can eventually cause loosening of the teeth.
Poor oral hygiene is an obvious cause. If you don't clean your teeth, you will soon develop bad breath.
Postnasal drip can cause bad breath. This is mucus that trickles down the back of the throat. The reason is inflammation in the air passages behind the nose because of allergies or a sinus infection. It often causes a ticklish cough, particularly when lying flat at night. This type of bad breath is worst when the person is speaking.
Bacteria on the back of the tongue are one of the commonest causes of bad breath. Food particles, postnasal drip and stagnant saliva build up in the 'fur' at the back of the tongue, providing a breeding ground for bacteria. These bacteria produce many nasty-smelling chemicals.
Anything that dries the mouth makes bad breath worse, because saliva cleanses the mouth. Tricyclic antidepressant drugs (such as amitriptyline) reduce saliva. Alcohol, alcohol-containing mouthwashes, heavy exercise and fasting can all result in a dry mouth and worsen a bad breath problem.
Isosorbide dinitrate, a drug for angina, sometimes produces an objectionable smell in the mouth.
Gut problems used to be blamed, and enemas and laxatives were often given as cures, but in fact these have very little to do with bad breath. Your stomach is shut off from your throat and mouth by a tight ring of muscle at the base of the foodpipe, so it is normally a closed tube. Therefore no odour escapes from the stomach, except if you belch, or regurgitate food (vomit).
Chest problems, such as obstructive airways disease (chronic bronchitis), can cause bad breath.
Bad breath in a small child may mean that the child has inserted a small object (e.g. a seed or small toy) into the nose, where it has stuck and caused an infection. For this reason, small children with bad breath should be seen by a doctor.

Written by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Edited by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Last updated: Friday, February 12th 2010


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Comments on this article

Posted by Smith on 16/08/2015 at 10:37

How to get rid of bad breath 100% First of all you start from your mouth go to a dentist to examine your gum, tongue, teeth, cheek, roof of the mouth. Ok if a white lesion is seen in your cheeks, a white patch on your tongue, roof of the mouth you will need to ask for a test so as to know the cause it might be a thrush, oral cancer or so. Secondly if you have tonsil stone remove your tonsil and adenoid completely cause they both cause bad breath when infected. Thirdly after all that if you still have bad breath go for a barium meal so as to check your oesophagus, lung, stomach and small intestine. And lastly go for an abdominal scan to check all the organs in your abdomen. With this bad breath will become a thing of the past.

Posted by johnny on 03/01/2015 at 01:40

I brush my teeth 5 times a day and still have bad breath please help!?

Posted by Optional on 29/12/2012 at 09:51

my husband had the no reovirus and has had really bad breath ever since, it has now been for 3/4 weeks. What could be causing this?

Posted by Hussein on 02/07/2012 at 09:19

Dear sir am emigrate from Africa Somalia have been here in london long enough.Eversince i was young in 20s i had bad breath but as grow older it become unbearable.I tested my blood fot diabetic as wellas urines,x-rays,ulcers all was negative. I need an advice what to do next.thanks

Posted by Optional on 28/02/2012 at 07:59

If you have bad breath that is halitosis and very severe,then you have to detoxify your body by going on a 14day,21day or 30-40 day fast and drinking juice and water to clean out and purge all the toxins,waste and food odors in your throat and colon.Detoxification is the answer,but it is not easy.A guy who used to have terrible bad breath and bad smell in his throat did a 30 day fast and now he has no more bad breath problem.

Posted by OptionalSs on 03/03/2011 at 11:21

Am 24 years male. started having bad breath since 6 years at least. though then was somehow tolerable( is now very intolerable coz its causing me alot of problems in my life. I have no. Dental problems as dentist told me. I brush twice daily. I removed my tonssils. It stays all the day. Very very bad in the morning and after exercises. am still single.water helps and apples but to very short time.its originating from somewhere else inside.I dont have stomach pain, chest pain etc. attributable to this problem. Can you plz suggest any remedial measure?

Posted by Optional on 22/11/2010 at 10:51

I struggle with bad breath everyday. It is very embarrassing because I am a teacher and I am in contact with people 24/7.

Posted by Ages on 10/08/2010 at 11:49

I started having bad breath since my childhood. I'v had detected that i had bad breath even when i was 10yrs. though then was somehow tolerable( is now very intolerable. Since then I have been with this problem for about 27yrs now with no intervals. I have tried all sorts of dental cares with dentists but to no avail at all. It is for this reason that I am not confident to go for marriage resulting that I am still single.I can feel that it is not just due to dental problem because whenever I block my throat with water, the smell does not occur which proves that its originating from somewhere else inside.I dont have stomach pain, chest pain etc. attributable to this problem. Can you pliz suggest any remedial measure?

Posted by Optional on 16/07/2010 at 07:20

A friend used to have very bad breath. She had her wisdom teeth out and the bad breath dissappeared. Now about 15 yrs. later, she has bad breath again. It smells like garlic. This is just about 10:00 in the morning after getting ready to go out. She has not eaten garlic!

Posted by Optional on 24/06/2010 at 12:01

Thanks for a detail response. I see my problem. I'm on andi depressants, Taking Welbrotrin 150 extented. I never had BAD, BAD breath or dry mouth til I started on andidepreesants. Thanks again.

Posted by Anonymous on 19/06/2009 at 03:06

When I open my mouth to speak some of my companions keep rubbing thier noses, to show their digust of the bad-breath smell, I think. Can this be taken seriously as evidence of having bad breath?

Posted by ola on 19/05/2009 at 01:03

boots used to have these mint tablets you could swallow, what are they called so I may order online?

Posted by someone on 07/04/2009 at 09:13

my sister has bad breathe. shes had bad breathe for ages now. It might be bactaria on the back of the tongue, because im almost certain its nothing else but, then again, it might not be. is there any different colours shown on the tongue if it is? because her tongue is very yellow at the back. or is that normal? I want to find out the cause :S


View what people have said about bad breath | What causes bad breath

Fascinating facts

Many chemicals cause the smell in bad breath including hydrogen sulphide, methyl mercaptan and putrescine.

Garlic rubbed into the soles of the feet can be detected later in the breath

Women clean their teeth more often than men - 76% of women brush their teeth at least once a day, but only 58% of men do (British Dental Association)

Politicians, lawyers, judges and teachers have the worst breath - they talk a lot, so their mouths dry out (Professor M Rosenberg)

Shakespeare mentions breath smell - sweet or stinking - more than 100 times. In his day, most people had bad breath (Professor M Rosenberg)

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